The Importance of Being Hannah

What accounts for the enduring ability of Hannah Arendt's writing to draw so many fans and so many detractors? A newly translated biography does not answer that question

"Hannah Arendt: For Love of the World" by Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, Yale University Press, 620 pages, $25.20 (Hebrew edition by Resling, translated by Ilana Dgani Bing )

Hannah Arendt

Two of the most difficult and fascinating Jewish women of the 20th century once sat together in Jerusalem, talking late into the night. They talked about Jewish fate and about God.

"My problem was, simply, how to get a foreign minister to stop talking and go off to bed," Hannah Arendt later wrote. Because Golda Meir told her that she did not believe in God; she believed in the Jewish people. Arendt was shocked: "The greatness of the people was once that it believed in God, and believed in Him in such a way that its trust and love toward him was greater than its fear," she wrote. "And now this people believes only in itself? What good can come of that?"

People like Meir caused Arendt to lose patience with Israel's successive governments. "I do not 'love' the Jews, nor do I 'believe' in them," she wrote, "I merely belong to them as a matter of course, beyond dispute and argument."

In truth, any issue Arendt took up aroused lively debates and vigorous disagreements, and in many cases remains controversial to this day. It's not necessarily easy to understand why: Arendt made a name for herself as someone who had an opinion on fundamental philosophical and political questions, but she never developed a philosophy of her own. Her writing style was heavy, cumbersome and difficult. Almost everything she wrote was written better by others. Today, however, she is held in high esteem, especially in Germany, where she was born in 1906.

Here is a question that Elisabeth Young-Bruehl's biography of her - now published in Hebrew by Resling - fails to illuminate: What accounts for the enduring ability of Arendt's writing to draw so many fans, and so many detractors?

She was also considered an influential thinker in the United States, where she went to live in 1941, apparently with some reluctance, after having gone into exile in France and even spent a few days in a detention camp. In America there was a market for Arendt's brand of secular pluralism, and she knew how to appreciate her new homeland. She taught at the famous New School, and wrote books and articles, which she enjoyed more. But like Yekkim (German-born Jews ) in other places, it is doubtful whether she ever felt at home in America. Nor does the combination of the German, Jewish, American, philosophical and political components of her identity find satisfactory expression in this biography. The chapters that are supposed to decipher her philosophical writings are as hard to understand as Arendt's texts themselves: The question of what made her one of the leading intellectuals of the 20th century is not, therefore, answered in full.

Young-Bruehl, a New York psychiatrist, wrote her doctoral dissertation in philosophy under Arendt's supervision, and regards her with awe: The biographer almost always calls her by her full name, Hannah Arendt, sometimes two or three times in the same sentence, as though Arendt possessed some presence or wholeness that must not be violated.

The second half of the book's title - "For Love of the World" - captures the author's tendency to emphasize the human warmth she saw in Arendt, the compassion and friendship. Arendt wrote very emotional poems, which the book reproduces; she experienced a woman's passions and the love of men. But in principle, even this very sympathetic biography conveys the image of a sharp, opinionated woman, who is stiff and introverted, almost just as much as Golda Meir: What Arendt loved was not "the world," but rather correspondence with people who also came from Central European culture and accepted her opinion; others, she belittled with chilling sarcasm.

Zionist ally

In her youth, Arendt learned Hebrew. While studying philosophy, she also inquired into Jewish history. When the Nazis rose to power, she realized that the Jews had to leave Germany.

"When one is attacked as a Jew, one must defend oneself as a Jew. Not as a German, not as a world-citizen, not as an upholder of the rights of man," she would later say. Therefore, she allied herself with the Zionists. "Of course, with the Zionists," she emphasized.

She was active in the Youth Aliyah movement in Paris, wrote essays supporting the creation of the Jewish Brigade during World War II, and attacked the Jewish establishment for not doing enough to save the Jews in wartime.